10. The Flowers are Tumbling down the Roof, Sarah
“The flowers, Sarah.”
Bent underneath the sloping roof, the old woman squirmed to tend to her fire. The cauldron at her feet was black as night and steaming delicious odors into the air. The flickering flames at its bottom released what little light the twilight had to offer. She snorted to herself; the beasts would come again, sniffing for treats, if she continued cooking so well. It was rather unfortunate, how her only tasters looked towards her withering body with eyes of hunger.
She stirred the beautiful mixture slowly, treasuring each movement as carefully as a child would play with clay. A child. A child would have been nice to have around, thought she, but a child would have her heart like Sarah had. Sarah had been a fine little child to have around, because she knew the cold at the age of two, the animals at the age of five, and the sins of mankind at twenty. The mountains were full of sin, were they not? For all of humankind’s abuse rose like steam from her cauldron, all the way into the mountains. Why did the trees talk? Because the humans had ensured that the trees always had something to talk about. Voices and thoughts streamed from the cities into the skies, until they found crevices in icy mountains to settle in. The hall of the mountain king must have been harsher than any crevice, because the legend said that the sins of all froze under the King’s stare. He beheld all, and when he did, the evils froze in place. Evil was not warm or cold in existence, and so could never disappear. It still lived, in any form it could, but when it froze, the Mountain King ensured that it could not travel. Perhaps the Mountain King loved the trees, mused the old woman. He did not want them gossiping about human trifles.
The scents wafting into the cliffs above the cottage made her grin like a child. Oh, a child would be nice to have around, she thought. She crushed herbs in the palms of her wrinkled hands and scattered them over the frothing surface, watching their flakes lie still before getting pulled beneath. Almost immediately, the spices embodied the air, and the gust carried it far away. Soon, they would stalk towards her cottage. Once again, they would try to surprise her. For all their wisdom, they did not realize that she had more. She forgave them their ignorance, for they did not know that she had lived twice.
With her wooden ladle, she scooped up a sizeable portion of meat. Her cold fingers relishing the touch of warm flesh, she prodded the meat, peeling back a layer. Beneath, the meat was white. When she squeezed, the hot juices streamed down her hand.
“The stew is ready, Sarah.”
Within the cottage was a little room, and within the little room stood a small wooden table. Upon this table sat seven large wooden bowls. Cradling the seven in her limber arms, she set them at the foot of the cauldron. She ladled the contents of her hot pot into each bowl as evenly as possible, and then one by one, deposited them several safe feet away from the cottage, on green grass. As if waiting for her to do just that, the heavens let fall the first snowflake.
“Hmph. They better come quick, huh, Sarah?”
And slowly, as if tearing themselves out of the shadows of the forest, they would come towards her. Muscles ripping underneath thick fur coats, every paw pressed almost gently into the snow, the wolves were vivid paintings etched into a world built of empty canvas. The first to emerge was always the oldest- a black- faced brown beast the old lady called Fire. When the wolves spoke to her, as once they did, they spoke through the majestic red wolf. He led the group as a veteran warrior, with scars torn through fur as evidence, and his wisdom was clear to see. The old one was a survivor, it was plain to see. The scars were a testament to his absolute lack of fear- as if we were a daredevil whose closest escape from death gave him invincibility. Fire did not care much for anything but food, as if the only thing he needed to do was go on, and to go on he needed sustenance, and so he came to her. It was a simple equation.
Half a century ago, Fire had been wise but fiercely interactive with the old woman. He stalked much closer to her cottage, while the other wolves stayed put beside their bowls of food. Though she had always yearned to run her hands through his burning mahogany and orange fur, she always resisted- Fire was unpredictable, and too dangerous to reach out and grasp. The closest contact she had had with him was a series of deep rumbling growls that had ended their relationship. Many years ago, Fire had stepped through the forest quite alone, quite silently. His heavy paws made faint imprints in the snow, which told the old woman that he was not here for food. He was here to send a message- he was here to talk to her. The wolf had peered intensely into her eyes then, before growling again and again, as if waiting for her to get the point. But his eyes soon grew hopeless as they held hers, and the wolf turned and walked back into the forest. They would never come that close again. Now, they looked upon each other at mealtimes, and often, Fire would not even glance at his old friend.
It had hurt the old woman more than she anticipated- to lose a friend that she never spoke to- but Sarah had been there to give her company. Now, in the silence of the mountains, she could speak to nobody about the day Fire cut off the bond they had shared. She had tried speaking to Sarah about it, but the child was far too positive to understand the old woman’s self-pity. Doors that were closed meant other doors were open, she had told the old woman time and time again.
A chorus of heavy breathing came from the forest. It was not Fire that emerged first. Steam rose from their jaws as they moved. There was Darkstar, the black-as-night creature that had eyes like stars, the quietest one in the pack. He did not make a sound as his paws plodded the snow. Even his breathing, though his shoulders rose with every breath, was impossible to hear. Darkstar was the night sky wrapped around a predator. The old woman assumed that the only one capable of surprising her was he- he was stealth incarnate. But under the quiet black sky, a furious galaxy of supernovas swirled. From there, Darkstar would open his great maw and howl, a sound that tore at eardrums and split the air into pieces. The howl punctured the silence of the mountains time and time again; when he howled from a distance, the entire valley reverberated with its sound. Darkstar, when he did raise his voice, was power. When he was silent, he was a permanent etching of darkness on a lighted sky.
“Sarah...” the old woman murmured.
Close behind Darkstar, Ranger paced. She was an odd creature, seemingly always at odds with the environment around her. Her snout moved left and right as she constantly surveyed what was around her. Even when nothing mattered but the bowl of stew steaming before her, Ranger only cared about absorbing the world around her. It made the old woman envious, to think of how easily Ranger waltzed around forests and mountains, always in search of new prey and new sights. At some deep and intelligent level, Ranger must have cared more about sightseeing than food. Perhaps, unlike Fire, the world was her sustenance. It gave the old lady shivers to think of a lone wolf exploring the mountains, stepping through stone and grass alike, perhaps through every stone on these mountains, and finally coming to a stop at her lonely cottage. Ranger was a dirty white- a white that must have been once spotless and bright- that made her look like stained clothes wrapped around a four-legged predator. The longer Ranger lived, the dirtier her white coat became, as if she carried her experiences around with her, much like Fire’s numerous scars. Fire, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen, still.
The grey wolf that pulled itself next from the trees was quietly graceful. She was fluid, and so the old woman called her the Dancing Fang, a skilled warrior that danced between prey, striking at the most perfect time, avoiding wounds altogether. Of all the wolves, Dancing Fang was the most unscathed. Scars did not line her body- she looked like a purebred creature raised in the comforts of a home, not a battle combatant. The old woman liked to think of her as the backup plan of the entire pack- if things weren’t going their way, she imagined that Dancing Fang charged, claws out, and ended the battle as quickly as possible. When the battle was not at its most lethal, the creature stayed out of range, waiting for the right moment to come. Still, Fire did not step out of the trees.
With Dancing Fang came Stone Paw, the biggest wolf in the pack, and its fearless leader. Stone Paw’s fur was grey and flecked with white, the most normal shade of wolf the old woman had seen. Stone Paw looked ordinary until one noticed the bloodstains on his claws. Red and brown specks etched his silver claws- dried blood that he seemed to like collecting. His paws were by no means soft and gentle, but muscled and lean. The muscles that connected his paw to his long, loping body rippled with every moment, as if Stone Paw had come to understand the importance of arm strength in a battle. His jaws were clean, and his fangs spotless white like snow. When she had first observed the powerful cords going down his legs, a fleeting image of what one swipe of that paw could do made her keep her distance from the frighteningly large beast. Stone Paw was the only wolf she felt she could not understand, or even interact with. Darkstar and Dancing Fang had the grace to acknowledge their feeder, even if it were only with a glance of their steely eyes. But Stone Paw was stone faced, and did not give her the privilege of his gaze. He communicated with his presence, and that was enough to keep the old woman silent. She sat quite silently now, resigned to Fire’s abrupt absence.
Today, Stone Paw seemed less indifferent. His strides did not stop at his bowl, but instead went on as he paced around the members of his pack. Stone Paw maintained a distance from the rest of the pack as he slowly circled them. The old woman found it similar to how she, many years ago, had circled Sarah to protect her from the world outside. The leader of the pack had reason to protect his underlings, and that drove fear into the old woman’s heart. What threat loomed around her lonely cottage, where she had labored to produce food for the predators that lived in the lonely mountains? Fire was not here; her last connection to the clawed warriors had wandered from the pack.
She carefully picked her way to her door, where she stood watching the wolves. She frowned as she counted their numbers. There were three bowls apart from Stone Paw’s that were untouched. The old lady gasped as her eyes moved quickly between each wolf. She uttered each name softly under her breath. One more.
“Sarah. Silverskin has not come.”
Clutching the door frame, she remembered when the pack had first thinned down. This day was much like that strange morning, when Mother had stopped coming to her cottage. The seven wolves had been regular visitors, until the old woman changed. As if noticing the change, the protective, affectionate wolf she had named Mother had disappeared. She set down a seventh bowl every day, hoping fervently that the old wolf would return to eat with the younglings. But Mother never returned, her claws never clacking on the stone ever again, her greying snout never dipping into the bowl. The six other wolves always left her bowl untouched, as if they waited as well. Today, orange fur and silver fur no longer graced the clearing.. Silverskin had been the fastest, the quickest to arrive, the first to make a move, and he looked like a hunter that could never be outrun. His lithe body was not heavily muscled like Stone Paw’s, but he turned into a blur when he took off. The old woman remembered the first time she had seen Silverskin run; it had covered her with goosebumps to see just how frighteningly quickly an animal could move. Now, he was absent. Had he been outrun? The image of Fire’s ferocious maw in her mind, the old woman could not imagine the wolf dead.
The old woman stepped back, shutting the door behind her. She sat heavily, her breath in short bursts. Her heart hammered madly. Two days after Mother had left the pack, Fire had broken his subtle friendship with her. Silverskin’s absence had not had a consequence yet. Stone Paw was a guardian on this day, and all the pieces seemed to come together, however few there were. For Stone Paw to be guarding his suddenly-vulnerable pack, she assumed an attack had come to the mountain wolves. The old woman quickly bolted her door and windows shut. If the pack was thinning down and the leader feared her intrusions, she had best remain locked away. She did not know what Fire would do- his unpredictable fangs sinking into her flesh remained at the forefront of her whirling mind. In the beginning, she had assumed Fire had hated her change. She believed that as an animal, Fire had grown accustomed to old eyes peering at him- her old eyes. Even when Sarah tried to touch him, he growled menacingly. He seemed to dislike the young, even then. When the old lady had changed, and her eyes were no longer wrinkled but smooth almond-shapes cut into a high-cheekboned sparklingly fair face, Fire had turned away from her. Now, fifty years later, a different thought came to her. It was far better for Fire to detest her magical youth than for him to blame Mother’s disappearance on her. Mother’s greying fur appeared in her mind, and guilt sank her to her knees. If she was to be punished, Fire was not here to do it.
“Sarah, it was not my fault,” she pleaded. But Sarah was gone. Fifty years ago, she had left. The old woman did not understand.